Film Review: Ismael's Ghosts

Arnaud Desplechin’s movies-within-a-movie Gallic star vehicle (Cotillard! Amalric! Gainsbourg!) shuffles moods nearly as often as the manic director whose past threatens to destroy his present.
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If a person who had just seen Arnaud Desplechin’s Ismael’s Ghosts were asked, “Did you like the movie?” they could be tempted to respond, “Which one?” There is the romance between an acting-out director and the woman who calms him; the seemingly dead person who comes back to life, the other filmmaker losing his mind; the spy story being filmed by the first director; the biographical backstory to that story; and so on. The movie’s restless spirit slides and leaps from closely observed romantic drama to glass-shattering melodrama to bug-out farce and back again. About the only thing missing here is a music number.

The polestar in Desplechin’s swirl of story is Ismael (Mathieu Amalric), a director in the middle of shooting an espionage thriller. We start inside Ismael’s movie, a crisply shot flurry establishing the larger-than-life legend of charming and polylingual “diplomat” Ivan Dedalus (Louis Garrel), who everyone assumes is actually a spy. Disappointingly, we are wrenched out of that intoxicating fabulist’s world and thrown into the more mundane turbulence of Ismael’s life. Haunted by the memory of his wife Carlotta, who went missing and was declared dead two decades before, Ismael has found some solace in the arms of an astrophysicist, Sylvia (Charlotte Gainsbourg). (Their meet-cute is handled in a flashback where the offhand and self-aware comedy of one of their exchanges—she asks “You sleep with your actresses?” and he replies jovially, “Of course!”—can’t help but feel sour in the post-Harvey Weinstein era.)

But although Sylvia acts as a balm to Ismael’s restive spirit, demons lurk. In the middle of the night, Ismael is summoned to the apartment of Carlotta’s father Henri (László Szabó). A decorated filmmaker who has never recovered from his daughter’s death, Henri now rages about anything and everything, his nightmare-chased spirit a hint of the mania that would be waiting for Ismael down the road were Sylvia not in his arms. They’re a great match. Amalric is puckish as ever, his eyes occasionally glinting with a threat of true madness that serves as a perfect foil to Gainsbourg’s solid directness.

But then, Desplechin detonates the landmine buried just under the movie’s surface. Carlotta, or at least a woman claiming to be her, returns in the form of Marion Cotillard. Wandering into a relaxing respite for Sylvia and Ismael at his beach home—as in most French movies about the creative class, easy access to gorgeous real estate is a given—Carlotta explains away her disappearance with a frank flatness that recalls an ex-cult member and asks for a place to crash. This sends the newly shattered Ismael into another whiskey-soaked and nightmare-plagued tailspin that leaves Sylvia to decide whether it’s worth hanging around to put the pieces back together again.

Ismael’s Ghostsfinds a worthwhile story of ghostly l’amour fou in this uneven love triangle where nobody is certain about what they want. As the exasperated paragon of normalcy, Sylvia is left with the least to do while Carlotta and Ismael rake over the embers of their relationship. Cotillard’s fascinatingly inscrutable take on the ephemeral Carlotta is the most engaging of the three performances. Her blasé nature hints at great secrets to be divulged, a madness to match Ismael’s, or both.

Before Desplechin gets even close to that moment, though, he spins the movie off into tangential subplots, flashbacks and further scenes from Ismael’s Ivan spy movie. These amplify the tone of a story that had settled into a quieter place after the initial chaos of Carlotta’s return. Some of the segments have a worthwhile energy, especially the further adventures of Ivan—a worthwhile movie on its own—and the unexpected slapstick furor of the storyline where Ismael’s producer Zwy (Hippolyte Girardot) desperately tries to bring the crazed filmmaker back to his stalled project. But the shuffling of mood and style without enough of a guiding principle saps the movie of its momentum. It also cheapens the borderline-tragic material featuring Henri and wastes Szabó’s furiously committed performance. 

As a quasi-comedy about an artist chasing his own tail, Ismael’s Ghosts eventually falls prey to many of the same tendencies it initially appeared to be satirizing.

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